Artist Focus: Samuel Githui – A powerful sense of realism

(From the Margaretta Wa Gacheru Jua kali diary)

One of Nairobi’s most important young artists, I only met Samuel Githui late last year (2009) when he was having a one-man exhibition at RaMoMA. And I fell for his work from the start, especially the way he honors ordinary kenyans’ life experience in his art, art that such a powerful sense of realism that I would almost call it ‘hyperrealism’ in the Baudrillardian sense.
Yet Githui’s down to earth themes conceal the artist’s deep sense of symbolism: the fact that his bicycles symbolize “progress” from a peasant’s point of view, the donkey reflects the Kenyan nation’s long suffering struggle to work hard and yet it doesn’t get the honor it deserves, and the traffic jam that he painted which, for me, depicts the agony that every Kenyan feels today when he or she is caught in the bumper to bumper jams that have become (apart from the Christmas and New Year’s holidays) an everyday occurrence.

It was in the context of a conversation about his painting, the Traffic Jam, that Githui told me he had given the piece away to an Italian curator from Naples who had just opened a new contemporary art gallery/museum and wanted to feature African art. Learning more about Githui’s encounter with Antonio Manfredi, [artmanfredi(at)hotmail(dot)com) I was fascinated to find that he gave that specific work to Antonio to exhibit at the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in a show that runs from December 5, 2009 to February 2010.

Believing that Antonio is connected with major art dealers and patrons in Europe, Samuel sees his gift a wise investment. “Antonio has promised me another exhibition at his museum at a future time that’s convenient to me,” Samuel said, trusting that the Italian will be true to his word. Githui felt that Antonio selected this particular piece because he had wanted to visit Samuel’s studio and had also wanted to take the people’s means, the matatu, to get there. “He had been fascinated by the matatu we were on and he immediately took out his camera and started taking photographs,” Githui said. “I think it was because of his fascination with that matatu ride that he picked Traffic Jam to take back to Naples with him,” Githui said.

Meanwhile, Githui is having two, not just one exhibition in Italy right now. The other is in venice where he had an artist residency from May through August 2009. He stayed in a palace bequeathed by a wealthy woman who wanted her home reserved for artists’ advancement. The work he devised is an installation including a video that he showed me based on the lives of struggling African immigrants, mostly from West Africa living in Venice. The video, entitled ‘Bagged’, shows the plight of immigrants who may have papers to allow them to work legally in the country, but as Italian industries have been hit by the economic meltdown, the work dried up and the Africans are thus unemployed. They live out of bags; but they also buy plastic bags from Chinese and sell them on the streets of Venice.

And as the video showed, “they also run with their bags when the police come”, and there was an Africans demonstration 2 days after he arrived, protesting what they saw as discrimination. A fascinating video, inspired by a conversation Githui had with a Senegalese man named Mbaya, who had a kiosk not far from Githui’s residence, and who approved of the Kenyan’s video before it got included in his installation. “The exhibition organizers also had to screen the video, but they also approved it,” which made sense to Githui since the theme of the exhibition was “Urgent Matters.”

“I do think the plight of immigrants, including both Africans and Asians, is an urgent matter in Venice,” Githui said/ “It’s a matter that cannot easily be ignored, since the immigrants are everywhere,” he said. Yet I reminded him that some Italians could easily ignore this problem, but he was doing a good thing by highlighting it. The fact that he could arrive in Venice and instantly hit upon this problem was fascinating to me.
But what is even more fascinating is Githui’s wider view of life, which allows him to see and create artistic works from a grass roots perspective. This is what I admire most about his Kenyan collection, but even when he was in Venice, he painted ordinary people in everyday environments [like walking through the Stoporgetto], and by so doing, he was able to capture realistic elements of people’s lives.


Githui went back to Venice in November 2009 to mount his exhibition which had been part of the residency entitled “Art Enclosures”, in which he and another African, from Zambia both featured. The Fondatione de Venice is the organization that had called on African artists to apply for the residency and Githui had seen the call on He hadn’t expected to win the residency, but when he did, he was deeply humbled by his experience. “When I got there, Yoko Ono was just opening her exhibition around the corner from our studio, although I didn’t get to see her since she was surrounded by so much security,” he recalled.

“What I really appreciated about Italy was the respect in which Artists are held. People there really understand art and value it,” he said. He was often involved in giving talks about his work during those months. And he also made several paintings of the underground walkway that he sketched and then painted while there. There are still there, “and I just received an email asking how much I was selling them for,” said Githui.

I asked Githui whether he felt his experience in Italy was a turning point in his life, and he said “Yes, it was definitely a major milestone in my life. The biggest thing was the response I got from the Italian public. For instance, one university professor came and told me my art was of an international caliber.
“What was also great was being able to talk to people about my art and art in general,” he said. The other thing was being able to move freely around Venice, making a video, an ingenious sculpture styled installation and set of paintings that were very well received. “it definitely was a confidence builder,” said Githui who was grateful that he had a Zambian counterpart, Victor Mutelekesha with whom he could share ideas and artistic enthusiasms.

Githui said he had been very fortunate with regard to weathering the economic storms of late 2008 onwards. He said his clients and art patrons had mostly been affected by the credit crunch. “Many told me they were not in a position to buy my work,” he said, noting that his clients are mostly expatriates, although he also gets commissions from local people who mostly want portraits; and he also teaches several students at 1000/an hour. “Before I went to Italy, I asked one german client who was just about to leave the country to help me out by buying more of my work. She said she didn’t have room in her house to buy more, but she did so anyway, and her assistance enabled me to get to venice,” githui said. Then he was given accommodation, art materials, studio space and per diem, much of which he saved. “So I have been fortunate that I have been able to weather the storm.”

Githui has one American-Asian lawyer patron named Ranganath, who has been buying his art practically from the first time he mounted a public exhibition.

1. In 2003, he bought art from his first show at Ngong Race Course, organized by Ramoma
2. In 2005, Ranganath then bought from his Nairobi National Museum exhibition called “One for the Road” which he mounted BEFORE the museum got renovated
3. In September 2009, he bought Githui’s show entitled “Daily Bread” at the GoDown
4. Current works in progress are inspired by Dancers, a series Githui is working on but which the Asian-american bought pieces from. “He even brought someone from the American embassy to come and they said they’d contact me to collaborate with any Americna artists who might be coming,” he said.

Githui admits he was only able to get started in his art career by doing ‘jua kali’ sign writing out on ladders and often out in the hot sun. “That was how I earned the capital to buy art materials,” he said. Today, Githui says he is very fortunate because he can survive on his art.

What I love about Githui’s art, as I said, is his appreciation of ordinary Kenyans’ everyday lives. The “work in progress” that I found underway when I reached his studio was a painting of the view of a busy bustling street from the bridge overlooking Muthurwa Market across Haile Selaisse Avenue. “Nobody every uses that bridge,” he said. “they all walk in the street,” which is exactly what he painted….in fact, the work is not a painting as yet. What I saw was the sketch that he made of that Muthurwa crossing, filled with people of all types crossing the busy street… The canvas on which he was working was covered with chalk… and it is fascinating to see how his work is developing. Githui has other works in progress, but he didn’t want to talk about them yet.

Why he says he loves painting local scenes is because life in Nairobi is “unpredictable….you never know what is going to happen next.” That sense of wonder and curiosity and activity infuses all of Githui’s art, and it is what makes his paintings so surprising.

Yet Githui claims he plans to move on into sculpture very soon.
1. “My first workshop at Kuona [where he was based via the GoDown from 2005-2007] was a stone sculpture workshop run by Maggie otieno,” he recalled.
2. “My second workshop was with Gakunju Kaigwa in2006 and it involved welding and casting in fiberglass. Gakunju said I was wasting my time with painting and should do more sculpture,” he said.
3. Githui recalled that in 1995 or 6, he was frequently at Kuona when Elijah Ogira held the first sculpture workshop and people like Maggie Otieno first discovered the joys of sculpture. “But at that time, I was struggling just to earn enough to pay tuition at the Creative Arts Center,” he recalled.
4. Githui was among the first artists working at Kuona: “At the very beginning, they provided us with stretched canvas, paints, and communal brushes, but I had to go away after a while [since I had to choose between paying bus fare to kuona and tuition at CAC], but when I came back a few months later, there were NO ART MATERIALS GIVEN, and we were told we had to provide our own materials

Nonetheless, the artists Githui met back then are still his good friends. It was simon muriithi in fact who called him to the Go Down this past November [2009] to meet Manfredi Antonio along with a variety of other Kenyan artists all of whom contributed to the Naples exhibition. They include carol mbirau, mary ogembo, Samuel, joseph cartoon, the Eritrean fitsem, and others. Githui is philosophical about his art, since he may still be upset that the Ministry of Culture never brought back his art from Italy in 2004, but he doesn’t mind if Antonio keeps his work at the Naples museum, at the Casovia Contemporary Art Museum [] since he believes his art will have an impact in Italy and he is already proving himself right.

“I was deeply humbled with one Italian university professor told me my work is world class.” I think so too.
[Githui’s Venice show is still on at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, which is the same foundation that organized the 2009 summer Venice Biennale, which he attended.]

The artist- Samuel Githui holds all the copyrights to the artworks whose photos appear in this article


All photos are courtesy of Margaretta Wa Gacheru. She can be reached on nargarettag(at)yahoo(dot)com

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